OHSU doc talks youth vaccinations, new hospitalization trends


FDA could authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for kids aged 12 and older as soon as this week

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — In the effort to increase COVID-19 vaccine distribution, the Biden administration hopes to vaccinate millions of 12 to 15-year-olds soon.

Although more and more adults are getting vaccinated, plenty of people still have kids to worry about. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration could authorize Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for young adults age 12 and older as soon as this week — welcome news for many parents.

One of those parents is a doctor and an associate chief medical officer for capacity at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Matthias Merkel says he’s watching the developments with vaccine trials for teens — and he’s hopeful his household will soon all be able to enjoy the protection from the vaccine soon.

“I have three children. Two of them are under 16 and I’m waiting for them to be eligible to get vaccinated because I think it’s the best risk reduction we can offer any of us to not ending up in any of our ICU needing this therapy,” Dr. Merkel said. “It reduces substantially your risk of dying of COVID-19 — so yes, absolutely get vaccinated.”

Having a safe vaccine for kids aged 12-15 also significantly increases Oregon’s chances of getting closer to community immunity. Science tells us around 75% of the population needs to be vaccinated to suppress COVID-19 from routinely spreading. Without community immunity, it would require nearly all adults to get their shot.

To be clear, we are currently still far from that benchmark. Looking at the most recent data available, Oregon is hovering around 30% of people fully vaccinated, while the United States is at 32%.

As we work to reach that community immunity, Oregon has ramped up its efforts to distribute the vaccine, specifically working to reach families with teens.

The hospital groups running the mass vaccination clinic at the Oregon Convention Center sent invitations to school districts in the Portland metro area. The invitations allow students 16 and up, as well as their families, to schedule special appointments on Wednesdays, which are online school days. School buses delivered eligible students to the vaccine clinic for the first time this week.

Other Oregon school districts such as Beaverton and Tigard-Tualatin are planning to participate in student vaccination efforts in the coming weeks. Various districts say they expect to start administering vaccines from their schools’ on-site health clinics in the near future.

The Oregon Health Authority says even without reaching community immunity, we can still prevent severe disease, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 through vaccinations — something that Dr. Merkel stresses is key to our path forward.

While efforts to vaccinate people statewide trudge on, Oregon is seeing a surge of hospitalizations in younger demographics.

In earlier days of the pandemic, we saw our older population hit hard by the coronavirus. Now doctors at OHSU say they’re seeing a wide range of ages of patients being hospitalized with COVID-19.

Instead of the vulnerable people who are aged 65 and up, Dr. Merkel says the ages of those being hospitalized are now ranging from the 30s, 40s and 50s.

“What has changed through this pandemic and what is different than this fourth wave is receiving younger people, [who are] getting COVID and getting very sick with it,” Dr. Merkel said. “As an example, right now we have five patients all under 60 in our medical ICU on the maximal treatment we can offer for COVID-19 lung failure.”

Given that he’s seeing people in their 50s on life support, Dr. Merkel says this means two things: the vaccine is working to protect the older population — and choosing not to protect yourself with a vaccine is a gamble.

He stresses to contact your doctor if you have questions or concerns about getting vaccinated.  

With hundreds of millions of Americans now being fully vaccinated, the real-world data indicates the Moderna vaccine is 95% effective in preventing serious hospitalization and death and Pfizer’s vaccine is 97% effective.

Dr. Merkel says he likes those odds.

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